The Songs of the Kings

by Barry Unsworth

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In his many historical novels, Barry Unsworth has consistently focused on the theme of appearance versus reality. In Morality Play (1995), for example, a group of actors unashamedly converts a real incident into a theatrical fiction, while in both Sugar and Rum (1988) and Losing Nelson (1999), writer-historians search for the reality that underlies what they find are the fictions of recorded history. In The Songs of the Kings, Unsworth suggests that both history and art are false. The Greek leaders of Homeric legend are shown influencing the course of history by deceiving themselves and one another, then peddling their plausible falsehoods to a bard who is more interested in aesthetics than in truth. The end result is that the words of the bard violate the facts of history and celebrate the nobility of ignoble men.

The Songs of the Kings begins at Aulis, where the Greek ships have gathered prior to their departure for Troy. Ostensibly the mission of the Greeks is to retrieve or punish Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, for running off with the young, handsome Trojan prince Paris and to wreak vengeance on Troy for granting refuge to the lovers. In actuality, however, almost everyone in the Greek camp, from the loftiest king to the lowliest foot soldier, can hardly wait to plunder what is known to be one of the wealthiest cities in the Mediterranean world.

The Greek flotilla has been ready to set sail for a week, but the ships have been held in port by adverse winds, and there is no sign of a coming shift in wind direction. The men are beginning to quarrel among themselves. It is only a matter of time before they turn on their leaders, and the man most at risk of losing his power is the one who has had himself made commander in chief of the expedition, King Agamemnon of Mycenae. On the morning of the seventh day, Agamemnon feels that he can wait no longer. He summons Calchas to him, hoping for an explanation of his ill fortune and a quick remedy for it.

The rest of the story is common knowledge: Agamemnon decides to placate the gods by sacrificing his daughter Iphigeneia. He sails to Troy, triumphs, and returns home, only to be slain by his wife Clytemnestra, who has nursed her anger over the long years of his absence. Unsworth does not make any major changes in this outline of events. Where he differs is in his portrayal of the people involved. While Homer’s characters were heroic human beings with all-too-human flaws, almost all of Unsworth’s are unheroic and despicable.

The Songs of the Kings  is structured much like a five-act drama. The first section of the novel is called “The Eagles of Zeus” because while Agamemnon was still at Mycenae, it was reported to him that two male eagles had been seen hunting together. At the time, Calchas, a diviner, had been asked to comment on the unusual phenomenon. His interpretation was a simple one and one not likely to annoy his superiors, of whom Calchas had a healthy fear. The eagles, he said, represented Agamemnon and Menelaus, and the flight of the birds over Mycenae was meant to assure the kings that their cause was just. Now, however, three men have been brought to Agamemnon with additional information. They insist that they saw those eagles swoop down on a pregnant hare, kill her, and devour her along with her unborn young. Supposedly Agamemnon’s next move will be governed by Calchas’s interpretation of these details. However, in the...

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next section of the novel, this honest if somewhat spineless priest is shown losing his influence over Agamemnon and being replaced by malevolent men.

In “The Heavy Burden of Command,” the author traces the steps taken by Odysseus and Chasimenos as they maneuver Agamemnon into believing that his status as a great leader leaves him no choice but to sacrifice his daughter. Both men have selfish reasons for promoting the war. Chasimenos is motivated by his loyalty to Agamemnon; as a devoted civil servant, he is willing to do anything that will benefit his master. Odysseus, on the other hand, is interested only in what he can get out of the conquest of Troy; he is tired of being the ruler of a small, rocky, impoverished island, and he wants both wealth and power.

Despite the difference in their motivations, the two plotters are alike in that they are both intelligent, far more intelligent than anyone else in the novel. They are also amoral. That these two are meant to remind readers of present-day politicians is evident in their use of modern euphemisms for immoral acts. For example, after one of the witnesses they had coached adds details of his own to the story about the eagles, Odysseus suggests that the man needs to be “neutralized.” Later Chasimenos, who is a master of casuistry, provides Odysseus with a word for what the two need to avoid: Agamemnon must not be set aside, or “marginalized.” Their reasoning is impeccable. Chasimenos has long since hitched his wagon to Agamemnon’s ascending star, and the wily Odysseus finds the easily influenced Agamemnon ideal for his own pursuit of power. All the two conspirators need is for the commander in chief to look like a decisive leader. He must maintain his image.

While Calchas is attempting to commune with the divine, Odysseus and Chasimenos recruit Croton, the priest of Zeus, to aid in their plan. As Odysseus points out, one does not have to like a man to use him. Calchas is too much of an intellectual to be decisive; moreover, he is much too religious. Odysseus and Chasimenos prefer to work with someone unprincipled, someone whose self-interest will keep him grafted to his superiors. Croton’s goals are obvious. He wants the prestige and the power that come with being the high priest of the established religion, and he wants to spite his rival Calchas, who for so long has had the ear of Agamemnon. To Croton, it is the religious institution that is important; Zeus, if he exists at all, is just an accessory. Croton’s agnosticism is evident in that he is not afraid of offending Artemis, the goddess whom both Calchas and Iphigeneia serve. He is quite willing to suggest that her worship involves witchcraft. The misogynist slanders Croton circulates are meant to discredit Calchas and to diminish the power of his cult. By appealing to the deep-seated prejudice against anything female that is pervasive among the men in the camp, he can also help Odysseus and Chasimenos propel Agamemnon into decreeing his daughter’s death.

Odysseus has less success in enlisting the services of the Singer. Although he has been instructed to attribute the adverse winds to Zeus, the bard will not choose his subjects or tailor his material to please even a man as important as Odysseus. The Song is sacrosanct, says the Singer; it comes from the gods. Odysseus’s philistine utterances about art have no effect on the bard. Of all the characters in The Songs of the Kings, he alone stands totally apart from the action. However, because he is more concerned with his art than with either truth or morality, the Singer will not use his considerable power to save Iphigeneia, and his account of the events that take place at Aulis turns out to be almost wholly the product of his imagination. Its connections to reality are very slight.

In the third section of The Songs of the Kings, which is called “At Mycenae,” the setting changes. In these poignant chapters, the author focuses on the only two admirable characters in the novel. Iphigeneia is shown as an innocent fourteen-year-old girl who loves her father, takes her religious duties seriously, and has some hope of a happy marriage. When the delegation from Aulis arrives, bringing her word of her engagement to the great hero Achilles, she is overjoyed. It seems odd to her that when she goes to Aulis to meet her future husband, she is expected to leave her serving women behind. However, she persuades the men to let her take along just one of them, Sisipyla, the slave girl of her own age who is her only friend.

In the section that follows, appropriately called “Waiting for Iphigeneia,” the Greek leaders treat their inferiors in ways that prove how brutal, how callous, and how cruel they are. However, the men are shown as being no better then their superiors; they can hardly wait for the sacrifice of the aristocratic virgin, which they see as a superb entertainment for their benefit. Agamemnon’s standing among the men has never been higher. At this point, he could not call off the sacrifice even if he wanted to. In any case, Agamemnon is no longer thinking about his daughter. He has his mind on the knife that is being specially crafted for use in the sacrifice. He has to make sure that it is absolutely perfect.

Because there has always been speculation that Iphigeneia may have escaped, in “Dressing Up” the author suggests a scenario that would have saved her. Sisipyla offers to disguise herself and take her mistress’s place on the altar while Iphigeneia flees to safety. However, at the last moment Odysseus hits on an argument that Iphigeneia cannot resist: By going willingly to her death, she can atone for the past sins of her family, thus ending the blood curse that has lasted for generations and saving her people.

Even a reader who is thoroughly steeped in the classics will find Unsworth’s version of these events very persuasive. His use of contemporary slang and of the more familiar profanities contribute to the realism of this novel, and so, more subtly, does his insertion of political double-talk and gangsterish euphemisms into his characters’ casual conversations.

The author’s skill is nowhere more evident than in the way he handles characterization. Because much of the time the Greeks are busy deceiving one another, it is necessary for Unsworth to delineate clearly between what the characters say and what they think or feel. He solves this problem in two ways. At the first appearance of a character, he usually halts the action for an analysis of the character’s strengths, weaknesses, habits, and preoccupations, much in the manner of the nineteenth century novelists. His second method is to move from mind to mind, revealing the thoughts and feelings of one character after another. So skillfully does Unsworth blend authorial comment and varying points of view that when one finishes The Songs of the Kings, it may be difficult to recall all the twists and turns of the plot, but the characters are so vividly imprinted on one’s mind that they threaten to replace the Homeric originals. This is truly a memorable book.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 12 (February 15, 2003): 1051.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 24-25.

The New York Review of Books, October 9, 2003, pp. 4-6.

The New York Times, March 19, 2003, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review, March 30, 2003, p. 8.

The New Yorker 79, no. 15 (June 9, 2003): 103.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 7 (February 17, 2003): 57.

The Spectator 290 (September 21, 2002): 47.

The Times Literary Supplement, August 30, 2002, p. 8.